Emma Schofield takes a dive back into the world of video calls for series 3 of Staged, as Michael Sheen and David Tennant return to our screens as bickering versions of themselves in a comedy that has made the leap from lockdown experiment to fully-fledged sitcom.
The announcement that Staged was returning for a third series came as a surprise to a lot of people, myself included, who had put the comedy starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant into that box of “slightly bizarre things that happened in lockdown”. Not that it wasn’t good, quite the opposite, the short and snappy episodes featuring Sheen and Tennant’s Zoom exchanges were one of the few genuinely funny things to come out of those endless months of gloom and charred banana bread. The second series continued the theme and took it to whole new levels by morphing the comedy into meta-territory, depicting the duo grappling with the aftermath of the first series. Since then, the pair have both been busy elsewhere, particularly Tennant who having just graced our scenes as the vicar with a dark side in the BBC’s Inside Man, is currently making his return as the re-regenerated Doctor in Dr Who and gearing up to appear alongside Sheen in the much-anticipated second series of Good Omens in 2023.
So it was difficult to imagine what a third, post-lockdown, series of Staged might actually look like. Well the answer is apparently, very much like the first two series. The video calls are back as Sheen and Tennant dip in and out of their every day lives in order to discuss a new radio play, masterminded by their now washed-up, former director (and the show’s real-life creator), Simon Evans. While life has seemingly returned to normal for Sheen and Tennant, Simon’s career has ground to halt following the disastrous attempts to launch an American version of the show in series two. Finding himself desperate for work, Simon returns in this series and eventually persuades the pair to work on a new radio play. Conveniently, given Staged is being released in November, it turns out that all of this has a Christmas theme, with Simon planning to revive a Christmas classic through his reluctant cast. The shift to the outside world is eased in very gently in this series, with Tennant’s character in isolation during the first episode and video calls remaining central to the plot. All of this feels natural, in a world where many of us are now working remotely, the continuation of a work relationship which takes place predominantly over video call still makes sense.
As with the previous series, the dynamic between Michael Sheen and David Tennant is what keeps the script moving. Their exchanges are batted back and forth between them with a mixture of irritation and affection, but they are more than matched by the frequent appearances from Anna Lundberg and Georgia Tennant, whose own role in the comedy has grown exponentially with each series. Once again, Lundberg and Tennant’s timing and wry commentary on the ongoing squabbles between their respective partners takes centre stage in the scriptwriting. Their engagement adds depth and brings with it another layer of complexity for the twists and turns which sets Staged apart in a world full of mediocre comedy.
One of the highlights of the previous two series was the unexpected appearance of a whole host of famous faces who popped up on video calls for various reasons in each episode. A raft of top shelf actors including Dame Judi Dench, Samuel L Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Pheobe Walller-Bridge all starred as versions of themselves during Staged’s first two outings and the third series doesn’t let up. Things get particularly surreal in one episode where Neil Gaiman turns up on a call, refusing to talk about George R. R. Martin. As with the previous series, the cameos add to the disconcerting sense that the world is always being tilted slightly on its side; perhaps that is no bad thing.
And that’s really the magic that means that Staged still works as it makes the leap from pandemic mood-lifter to one of the sharpest comedies to hit our screens this year. The tight script, contained episodes and slightly surreal sense of confusion about what’s real and what’s not in this almost-but-not-quite reality, are what makes it so watchable. Comedy that’s moving with the times, now there’s a novel idea.
Series 3 of Staged is streaming now on Britbox.